Ecology, Story & Stranger Things

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Illustration by Anne Moody, typology & design by Costi Gurgu

One of the lectures I give in my science fiction writing course and conference workshops is called “Ecology in Storytelling”. It’s usually well attended by writers hoping to gain better insight into world-building and how to master the layering-in of metaphoric connections between setting and character. My upcoming writing guidebook “Ecology of Story: World as Character” addresses this subject with examples from a wide range of published fiction. The book will be released sometime in 2019 by Pixl Press.

In my lecture (and book) I talk about the adaptations of organisms to their changing environments. I describe the trophic (energy) relationships from producers to consumers and destroyers in a complex cycle of creative destruction.

Students perk up when I bring up some of the more strange and interesting adaptations of organisms to their environment: twisted stories of adaptations and strategies that involve feeding, locomotion, reproduction and shelter.

Purposeful Miscommunication & Other Lies

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Alcon blue butterfly and caterpillar with ant

For instance, the Alcon blue butterfly hoodwinks ants into caring for its larvae. They do this by secreting a chemical that mimics how ants communicate; the ants in turn adopt the newly hatched caterpillars for two years. There’s a terrible side to this story of deception. The Ichneumon wasp, upon finding an Alcon caterpillar inside an ant colony, secretes a pheromone that drives the ants into confused chaos; allowing it to slip through the confusion and lay its eggs inside the poor caterpillar. When the caterpillar turns into a chrysalis, the wasp eggs hatch and consume it from inside.

This reads like something out of a noir thriller. Or better yet, a horror story. Nature is large, profligate, complex and paradoxical. She is by turns gentle and cruel. Creative and destructive. Competitive and cooperative. Idle and nurturing.

Extremophiles & Anhydrobiosis

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Tardigrade on moss

When I bring in the subject of extremophiles, who thrive in places you and I would cringe to set foot in, students’ imaginations run wild with ideas.

I describe a panoply of weird adaptations in Nature—involving poisons, mimicry and deception, phototaxis and something called anhydrobiosis, which permits the tiny tardigrade to shrivel into a tun in the absence of water then revive after a 100 years with just a drop of water.

All this adaptation hinges on communication. How an organism or population communicates with its environment and among its own.

Examples of “strange” communication are the purview of the science fiction writer … and already the nature of our current world—if you only know where to look. The scope of how Nature communicates—her devices and intentions—embraces the strange to the astonishing. From using infrasound to chemical receptors and sensing magnetic fields. To allelopathy. Aggressive symbiosis. And so much more.

Talking Trees

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Dr. Suzanne Simard

UBC researcher Suzanne Simard, who has published hundreds of papers over 30 years of research, suggests a kind of “intelligence” when she describes the underground world “of infinite biological pathways that connect trees and allow them to communicate” In a forest.

This communication allows the forest to behave as if it was a single organism, says Simard. Her early in situ experiments showed solid evidence that tree species, such as Paper Birch and Douglas Fir communicated in a cooperative manner underground through an underground mutualistic-symbiosis involving mycorrhizae (e.g., fungus-root).

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mycelium connects trees underground

These trees were conversing in the language of carbon and nitrogen, phosphorus, water, defense signals, allelo-chemicals, and hormones via a network of mycelia. Fungal threads form a mycelium that infects and colonizes the roots of all the trees and plants. Simard compares this dense network to the Internet, which also has nodes and links—just as the forest.

Fungal highways link each tree and plant to its community, with busiest nodes called hub trees or mother trees. Calling them mother trees is appropriate, given that they nurture their young in the understory; sending excess carbon to the understory trees, which receive less light for photosynthesis. “In a single forest,” says Simard, “a mother tree can be connected to hundreds of other trees.” These mature trees act as nodal anchors—like major hub sites on the Internet—for tree groupings; according to Simard, they look after their families, nurture seedlings and even share wisdom—information—when they are injured or dying.

Fatal Attractions & Natural Bullies

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Bracken fern fronds

The “ordinary” Bracken fern thrives in a wide range of conditions on virtually every continent (except Antarctica). That’s because it plays the “long game” by having several strategies to outlive and outcompete its surrounding nemeses.

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The symbiosis of Bracken fern and ant

Strategies include a loose lifestyle such as several ways to reproduce and grow to accommodate seasons, drought and burning; a shady arrangement with the local thugs (aggressive ants) who protect it for its tasty nectar; use of cyanide and ecdysones by its young shoots; and tough carcinogenic fronds that contain glass-like silicates.

Despite its many uses by humans (e.g., used for potash fertilizer, heating fuel, roofing, bedding for animals), the Bracken fern is considered a pest. In truth, it is a hardy versatile adapter to changing environments. And that is what our climate changing world is fast becoming.

fernforestI highly recommend the works of Annie Dillard and Loren Eiseley for wonderful and bizarre examples of natural wonders that resonate with metaphor. I also recommend my upcoming book “Ecology of Story” (Pixl Press), which will showcase a diverse set of examples from the literature of metaphoric environment and creatures. “Ecology of Story” is due for release in Spring/Summer of 2019. Look for it on Amazon, Kobo, and a fine bookstore near you. Two other books in my writing guide series include: “The Fiction Writer” and “The Journal Writer“.

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nina-2014aaaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s recent book is the bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” (Mincione Edizioni, Rome). Her latest “Water Is…” is currently an Amazon Bestseller and NY Times ‘year in reading’ choice of Margaret Atwood.

 

How Creative Destruction Embraces Paradox…

“Very well, then, I contradict myself; I am large—I contain multitudes.”—Walt Whitman

OuterDiverse-cover-webCreative destruction … sounds like a paradox, doesn’t it? Nature—and God— is full of contradiction and paradox. There is so much that we do not understand (at least on the surface)… and apparent contradiction proves that to me. In Outer Diverse, Book One of The Splintered Universe Trilogy, my character Serge says:

“… somewhere between the infinities of [worlds] you would experience paradox: black holes, quasars; intuition, déjà vu, clairvoyance… order in chaos…darkness at the heart of all beauty… beauty in the heart of all darkness…a mathematician with faith …the strength of surrender…loving your enemy…dying to live…”

Paradox lies undeniably at the heart of the clash of two realms.

I understand something of paradox. As an ecologist, I deal with it all the time.

Destruction in creation and creation in destruction is ingrained in the life-cycles of everything on this planet, indeed in this universe. A forest fire can destroy life but in so doing creates a more vibrant, healthier forest.

Darwins Paradox-2nd coverIn my speculative fiction novel, Darwin’s Paradox, Julie applies her father’s ecological precept to describe her observations on the rise and fall of a civilization, an ecosystem and an entire world. The precept was based on C.S. Holling’s 1987 ecological model of creative destruction:

Fire was a constant hazard in the heath. Yet, fire served the heath by discouraging invasive shrubs and halting succession. The grazing deer populations completed the job of keeping the heath from reverting to woodland. So, fire had its place as creative destroyer in the natural cycle of ecosystem behavior. Stable chaos, according to her father. It was a harsh and rude environment, Julie concluded. Like thieves in the night, bell heather, gorse and purple loosestrife snatched everything for themselves, leaving nothing for the others. Like many things in nature, the heath plants, though beautiful and fragrant, were ruthlessly greedy. . .

Creative destruction was first introduced as a term in 1942 by the economist, Joseph Schumpeter to describe the process of industrial transformation that accompanies radical innovation. According to Schumpeter’s view of capitalism, innovative entry by entrepreneurs sustained long-term economic growth, even as it destroyed the value of established companies that enjoyed some degree of monopoly power. An example is Xerox, who has seen its profits fall and its dominance vanish as rivals launched improved designs or cut manufacturing costs, drawing customers away.

The Science of Creative Destruction

In his classic paper, entitled: “Simplifying the complex: the paradigms of ecological function and structure” (1987) C.S. Holling applied Schumpeter’s term to ecology. Holling’s model of ecosystem behaviour recognized ecosystems as non-linear, self-organizing and continually adapting through cycles of change from expansion and prosperity to creative destruction and reorganization.

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Holling presented several paradigms that ecologists use to describe the causes and behaviour (and management) of ecosystems, including an equilibrium-centred view (based on the constancy of behaviour over time), which Simon Forge described as “driving using the rear-view mirror”—trying to judge the road ahead by what went on behind. Holling advocated a “nature evolving” view, which describes ecosystems as undergoing sharp, discontinuous changes that are internally organized and balanced (I like his mobius loop to describe the closed ouroborus-like cycle of creation and destruction in nature). Holling described four phases of natural ecosystem succession within his “nature evolving” paradigm. It starts out with the exploitation phase, in which new opportunities are realized through rapid colonization and competition. Natural forces of conservation (e.g., nurturing, consolidation) lead to vulnerable systems (e.g., old growth forests), as stabilizing factors lose strength and the system evolves from having few interrelationships to having many. The result is often an abrupt change that both destroys systems and creates opportunity (creative destruction) through fire, storms, pests, senescence. Mobilization of bound, stored “capital” (e.g., carbon, nutrients and energy) through physicochemical and biological processes like decomposition and mineralization completes the dynamic cycle of functional ecosystems.

What this means for the ecosystem manager is that efforts to detect responses to changes, including human interventions like restoration activities, are confounded. Traditional (equilibrium-centred) ecosystem management may be misdirected, resulting in pathological “surprises” of ecosystem response and a spiralling vigilance and cost in control measures. Examples of traditional equilibrium-centred management of forests, fish and other organisms of terrestrial and aquatic environments with devastating consequences include:

  • firecycle copySuppression of spruce budworm populations in eastern Canada using insecticides partially protected the forest but left it vulnerable to an outbreak covering an area and of an intensity never experienced before;
  • Forest fire suppression reduced the probability of fire in the national parks of the United States but the consequence has been the accumulation of fuel to produce fires of an extent and cost never experienced before;
  • Semi-arid savanna ecosystems have been turned into productive cattle grazing systems in the Sahel zone of Africa, southern and east Africa, and other parts of the world. However, changes in grass composition have promoted an irreversible switch to woody vegetation and the systems have become highly susceptible to collapse, often triggered by drought; and,
  • Protection and enhancement of salmon spawning on the west coast of North America may have led to some success regarding enhanced stocks (e.g., hatchery-grown fish), but fishing industry is left precariously dependent on a few enhanced stocks which are vulnerable to collapse.

In each of these examples, the policy succeeded in its immediate objective. But in each case the system evolved into something with different properties and each “solution” led to a larger problem. In short, the biophysical environment had evolved into one that was more fragile, more dependent on vigilance and error-free management. Something Holling called “Nature Engineered.”

In his classic 1987 paper, Holling suggests that ecosystems be viewed—and managed—as “Resilient Nature”, where the experience of instability maintains the structure and general patterns of ecosystem behaviour; in other words, that Nature ‘learns’ and accommodates with time. In the final analysis, it is a matter of scale.

We are seeing that now as global warming takes force and we step solidly into the depths of the Anthropocene Age where green is the colour of resilience.

The Narrative of Creative Destruction

Water Is-COVER-webIn my book Water Is… I write: “Destruction in creation and creation in destruction are ingrained in the life cycles of everything on this planet and in the universe. A forest fire can destroy life but in so doing creates a more vibrant, healthier forest. Holling and I, in our separate studies, were really drawing on the ancient knowledge of polarity and cycles in nature. The opposing forces of polarity generate ongoing cycles of creation and destruction. The Ouroboros, remembering.”

The Ouroboros is an ancient symbol that depicts a serpent or dragon swallowing its own tail to form a circle. As a serpent devouring its own tail, the Ouroboros symbolizes the cyclic nature of the Universe: creation out of destruction, Life out of Death. The Ouroboros eats its own tail to sustain its life, in an eternal cycle of renewal. In the Gnosis scriptures, it symbolizes eternity and the soul of the world.

“in the Chinese I Ching, the hexagram for “crisis” also represents “opportunity.” This is because when we are in stasis (which represents lack of movement), we do not recognize our path; perspective only comes with movement. In this way, calamity, initially seen as disaster, may be viewed as unexpected opportunity for creative change. The unpredictable nature of water provides the opportunity to teach and learn.” The “crisis” of change and “destruction” provides opportunity, just as collision of viewpoints bring new ideas.”

pine bark

Recommended Reading:

Holling, C.S. 1987. Simplifying the complex: the paradigms of ecological function and structure. Eur. J. Oper. Rel. 30: 139-146.

Holling, C.S. 1973. Resilience and stability of ecological systems. Annual Rev. Ecol. Syst. 4: 1-23.

Holling, C.S. 1977. Myths of ecology and energy. In: Proceedings Symposium on Future Strategies for Energy Development, Oak Ridge, Tenn., 20-21 October, 1976. Oxford University Press, New York, N.Y.

Munteanu, N. 2016. Water Is… The Meaning of Water. Pixl Press, Vancouver. 586pp.

 

nina-2014aaaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s recent book is the bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” (Mincione Edizioni, Rome). Her latest “Water Is…” is currently an Amazon Bestseller and NY Times ‘year in reading’ choice of Margaret Atwood.